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NBA All-Star Game's Change Of Venue Reminds Our Commentator Of 1965


The NBA recently announced that it's 2017 All-Star game will be played in New Orleans, La. The game was originally supposed to take place in Charlotte, N.C., but it was moved after the state passed a bill limiting anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people. That got commentator Kevin Blackistone thinking about New Orleans' own history of civil rights in sports.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE, BYLINE: The National Basketball Association did not point to the coincidence in its announcement last Friday that it was rewarding New Orleans with its 2017 All-Star game - a game originally intended for Charlotte, N.C., next February. But the coincidence is rich - as rich as a 70 to 100 million dollars the four-day event is estimated to drop upon the cities in which it lands.

The reason the NBA extricated its All-Star event from Charlotte was because of North Carolina's so-called bathroom bill. The U.S. Department of Justice deemed it a probable violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because the bill limits anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people by, among other things, forcing them to use the bathroom of their birth sex. But half a century ago - 1965 to be exact - it was New Orleans that suddenly lost a professional sports all-star game because of its lack of tolerance and fair treatment of all.

Middle-1960s New Orleans was a typical Jim Crow Southern city. The main drag, Canal Street, was lined with stores and eateries in which black people couldn't get service. Even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed, black residents of New Orleans suffered those slights, as did black visitors, like 21 football players chosen to play there January 16, 1965, in the American Football League All-Star game. The Buffalo Bills' all-star rookie defensive back, Butch Byrd, recalled how, upon arriving at New Orleans' airport, he couldn't get a cab to his downtown hotel.

Other black players couldn't enjoy a night on the town because restaurants and clubs refused to admit them. And passersby splattered them with racial epithets. The black players called for a meeting at the Roosevelt Hotel, where half the all-stars stayed. They decided not to play. We were led to believe that we could relax and enjoy ourselves in New Orleans just like other citizens, Bills' all-star end Ernie Warlick told the team's website several years ago.

The AFL didn't have to decide what to do. The black players' white teammates made the decision for the league. If the game were to go on despite the absence of the black players, I would not play, San Diego all-star tackle Ron Mix nix told the Pro Football Hall of Fame recently. It was important for at least one white player to join them, to say we're with you. Mix discovered he was not alone.

On Monday, January 11, 1965, AFL commissioner Joe Foss made an unprecedented announcement - the nationally televised game was being moved due to a protest over discrimination. The record books says the Western conference eventually won that game at a high school stadium in Houston, but the real winner that year was the collective power of athletes to force righteous change.

GREENE: Commentator Kevin Blackistone. He's a columnist at The Washington Post. He also teaches journalism at the University of Maryland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Blackistone
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